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The Document Circle of Life in Office 365

Should I use SharePoint or OneDrive? This is a critical question in Office 365. It's not as simple as which app; it comes down to how your documents start their lives, work through collaboration, get published, and are put to death. This infographic should provide some ideas to get you going.
Published on
October 23, 2019

Two of the most frequently asked questions I get when it comes to SharePoint and the Office 365 realm are:

  1. Where should I store my files?
  2. What's the difference between SharePoint and OneDrive?

With this post and infographic, I’m going to cover an introduction to the circle of life of a document or file in SharePoint and Office 365. This is applicable to SharePoint on-premises (even if you don’t have OneDrive for Business) and SharePoint Online/OneDrive in Office 365.

Above is the infographic (click for full size) and below is an explanation into what I mean with it. Now, there’s a good chance you’ll have a comment, criticism, or “wait a minute…” reaction to at least part of this.

And that’s because simplifying how documents and files go through their lifecycles is not a science. This happens to be the easiest way for me to explain what can be an excellent starting point for most organizations. So use it as a first domino to get toward your perfect document lifecycle process.

The apps

OneDrive versus SharePoint: the big question. The simplest way to say it is: OneDrive is for my stuff and SharePoint is for our stuff. Keep things in OneDrive that are yours. Personal documents, sure. But also drafts that you’re not ready to share with your team. When you’re ready to collaborate, get input, ask for reviews, that’s when SharePoint comes in.

OneDrive is like the personal drive you likely have or had at work; it’s also similar to your My Documents folder. And SharePoint is like the shared drive/network drive/file share. I’ll get into much more detail moving forward, but just keep that binary relationship in mind: my stuff versus our stuff.

For brevity’s sake, in this post I’m going to refer to OneDrive for Business simply as “OneDrive”, but I mean the one that comes with your work account. “SharePoint” means either SharePoint Online or SharePoint on-prem (the general sense). “SP” means SharePoint on-prem (2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, or 2019) and “SPO” means SharePoint Online. (Sorry, I didn’t make these names, remember.)

If you’re using shared files in Outlook Groups, Yammer, or Teams, you’re using SharePoint Online in the background. You just happen to access it and edit files through a different interface. But it’s still a team site in SPO, plain and simple. So, when I reference SPO, it’s also applicable to files in Outlook Groups, Yammer, and Teams.

The document lifecycle

Think about how you generally create, update, and share files. It’s usually a three-step process, with plenty of looping of some steps. I’m going to boil it down really simply first. Keep in mind that this is a generalization of the process and what works for your team could be very different. Hate mail will be forwarded to my trash bin. 🙂

After years learning from various organizations on what works and what doesn’t, I believe this process is the best way to start.

  1. Draft new files in OneDrive. Or, alternately, draft them in your team’s SharePoint site, but in a library or folder that’s strictly meant for drafting.
  2. Move or copy your file to your team’s SharePoint site (or Outlook Group/Yammer/Teams files). Get reviews, comments, and input there. Do not use OneDrive; permissions in OneDrive quickly become nightmarish. Generally, this occurs in a SharePoint team site.
  3. Publish your file to its intended destination. This usually means an intranet/communication site (if it’s meant for all to see) or a separate library or folder in your team’s SharePoint site (or Outlook Group/Yammer/Teams files) for your team’s future use.

When updating published files, work off the last version in your team’s SharePoint site (or Outlook Group/Yammer/Teams files) so you retain the version history. Re-publish the updates by saving over (overwriting/uploading over) the already-published version.

If the file is a living document (the most recent version is always the correct one), like a status report, list of key contacts, things like that, just use the one copy in a published zone and edit it there, in place.

Now, let’s expand on this in more detail.

Draft the new file

You generally create a file from scratch, a template, or save an older file under a new name so you don’t have to do much rework. When you create this file, you usually have some work to do on it before you want to share it with anyone.

When this step comes up, I almost always suggest creating or saving the new file in your OneDrive. That way it’s only visible to you, yet still very accessible from your browser, from OneDrive on your PC or Mac, and from your mobile device.

The main reason I suggest using OneDrive is because it’s your space. Nobody else has access to it until you explicitly share the file. This prevents colleagues from seeing a file that’s not yet ready and saves the awkward ‘early review’ that you didn’t actually want yet. It also protects everyone else by preventing inaccurate information from getting around prior to being confirmed by colleagues who are responsible for that information.

That said, a SharePoint team site is perfectly fine for creating and drafting your documents, as long as your colleagues are aware that the file is in draft mode and not ready for review or dissemination yet. Basically, how much do you trust your colleagues?

What I always push back on is creating these files in your My Documents folder on your PC, your Desktop, a flash drive, or a personal cloud service like Google Drive. That’s because the file isn’t easily accessible, it could be lost forever, and the information (which could be extremely sensitive) isn’t being kept in a safe enough space.

No offense, but if you have an Excel spreadsheet with my Social Security Number in it, you best not be saving that file on a flash drive you can lose in a train station or on your Google Drive, which is free (and Google owes you nothing if something gets lost or breached).

Your OneDrive and SharePoint instances are secured either by your IT team or Microsoft, meaning somebody has ensured the system is safe to keep sensitive information. That said, it’s all together in one place, so why scatter files across multiple systems or storage devices? In the 2010s, it simply doesn’t make sense to save elsewhere.

Collaborate and garner feedback

The next step of the document lifecycle is sharing the file with colleagues to provide input or review. At this point, it makes sense to move the draft file from the safe space of OneDrive to your team’s SharePoint site. You can either make a copy or move it entirely; the former retains a copy in OneDrive while the latter does not. That said, if your team is successfully using Outlook Groups, Yammer, or Microsoft Teams, your file should be moved or copied to the Files tab in the appropriate app.

At this point, you can share links to the files with your colleagues so they can provide input and feedback. You should never attach the file to an email because you immediately lose configuration control on their knowledge. The minute you update the file in the future, the copy they retain in the email is no longer correct.

Also, getting reviews from multiple people via email is a nightmare. Let them all edit the master file directly and respond to each other’s comments in an efficient way. This will save everyone time and you may retain your sanity.

So, my suggestion for files that are in review or simply need to be updated later is to keep these files in a SharePoint team site (or Outlook Groups, Yammer, or Teams) where permissions are restricted so only the right people see the information (and, frankly, your reviews won’t be too crazy with so many people).

Yes, technically you can use OneDrive to collaborate on files. However, when you do this, you’re going to be setting up unique permissions to each file or folder; file- and folder-level permissions quickly become a nightmare that you will regret. SharePoint is built to have permissions based on working groups; take advantage of this setup and don’t fall into the trap of using OneDrive as a crutch. I’ve seen too many people take the bait and regret it later. Please don’t become a statistic.


The word publish can mean a lot of things, from something super formal to simply making an update to a project plan that changes regularly. But the concept is always the same, regardless of the formality: you’re updating information that you or others need to do their job, and the updates need to be known by the recipients to ensure the correct information is out there.

Generally, publishing happens either in an intranet/communication site or within a team site. Usually intranet sites are visible to the entire company; publishing here is usually more formal and posted either on a communications feed or sent via an all staff email. Team sites are typically only accessible to a small group of people; publishing here usually means a simple update and maybe a quick message to the team letting them know.

How you publish the file depends on your needs. When publishing to an intranet, I make a copy of the file in the team site and upload it to its new home in the intranet site. Retaining the copy in the team site means I can be working on updates in the background without affecting the live version on the intranet site.

When publishing within a team site (i.e., only your team needs to see the file, not the whole organization), it can be useful to have a library for draft files and a library for official resources. So I generally make a copy of the file from the draft library and add it to the official resources library. That way, everyone knows what’s “done” and what’s not. This is especially useful for things like templates, internal policies, things like that. The draft version is still available for updating without affecting the official version, can be run through feedback loops again, then you can update the official version once the draft is signed off/agreed to.

In both situations above, I suggest overwriting the published version of the document each time you publish so the official version retains version history that your viewers can see what changes have been made over time. This is your call and sometimes organizations don’t want their viewers to be able to see past versions, but I have yet to see a very good reason not to.

Now, for living documents—those files that are updated frequently enough and by one or a couple dedicated owners—it clearly makes sense to only have one copy of this and update it as necessary. This is applicable to, say, key contact lists, status reports, project task lists (and MS Project files/Gantt charts), and ad hoc information sources.


And, of course, the other major reason to use OneDrive and SharePoint is because of the great features that come with the tools. You should be aware of what the differences between OneDrive and SharePoint are, but generally speaking, this infographic about document libraries will get you started.

Matt Wade
Matt is an engineer-turned-IT nerd and Microsoft MVP. His career began in the nuclear power design field and ended up in SharePoint adoption, pretty much by mistake. He’s best known for his SharePoint and Microsoft 365 infographics—especially the Periodic Table of Office 365—and advocating Microsoft Teams as the modern workplace.

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